In 1550, Giorgio Vasari, the famous architect, painter, historian and writer, published the first edition of his monumental collection of biographies, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. A Second Edition was published in 1568.
In the course of his monograph on Leonardo da Vinci, Vasari included a wonderfully descriptive paragraph about Mona Lisa and its first sentence has become one of the most vital and examined few words in all the canon of literature concerning Mona Lisa. It is loaded with information, and until the earlier part of the 20th Century was the standard source on this subject:
“Prese Lionardo a fare per Francesco del Giocondo il ritratto di Mona Lisa sua moglie; e quattro anni penatovi lo lascio imperfetto, la quale opera oggi e appresso il Re Francesco di Francia in Fontanableo.”
“Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa his wife, and after he had lingered over it for four years, he left it unfinished; and the work is today in the possession of King Francis of France, at Fontainebleau.”
[Note: Leonardo did not work on the portrait consistently over the four-year period, and, as with most of his paintings, he had others execute certain parts. It is known that he was also involved on other projects during this time.]
Here Vasari introduces the relatively unknown Francesco del Giocondo, his wife, and for the first time, the name “ … Mona Lisa …” He continues by stating that, after working on it for four years, Leonardo left the painting in unfinished condition, and that, in 1550, it was in the possession of King Francis I of France, at Fontainebleau. However, the painting that is today in the Louvre, generally believed to have been the one originally at Fontainebleau, is clearly finished.
“Clearly, it was because of his profound knowledge of painting that Leonardo started so many things without finishing them; for he was convinced that his hands, for all their skill, could never perfectly express the subtle and wonderful ideas of his imagination.” Giorgio Vasari, 1568
Vasari places the painting chronologically at Leonardo’s return to Florence, which was in 1500. Mona Lisa, born in 1479, was at that time a young woman in her early 20s.
VASARI INTRODUCES LISA
“Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife, and after he had lingered over it for four years, he left it unfinished; and the work is today in the possession of King Francis of France, at Fontainebleau. Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art could imitate nature could readily perceive this from the head; since therein are counterfeited all those minutenesses that with subtlety are able to be painted: seeing that the eyes had that lustre and moistness which are always seen in the living creature, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution. The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, appeared to be alive. The mouth with its opening, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse: and indeed it may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every brave artificer, be he who he may, tremble and lose courage. He employed also this device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, while he was painting her portrait, he retained those who played or sang, and continually jested, who would make her to remain merry, in order to take away that melancholy which painters are often wont to give to their portraits. And in this work of Leonardo there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold, and it was held to be something marvelous, in that it was not other than alive.”
Thus, Giorgio Vasari describes, in almost passionate detail, Leonardo’s portrait of ‘Mona Lisa’.
” … after he had lingered over it for four years, he left it unfinished … ” Giorgio Vasari, 1550.
This statement by Vasari, which was published more than thirty years after Leonardo’s death is all-important, as it sets a limit to the period upon which the master was at work upon the portrait. The painting being described then as unfinished, when one also considers that Heidelberg document, distinctly shows that he did not work on it after c.1506. This reconfirms what Vespucci had already predicted: that Leonardo painted a portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo and that he would leave it unfinished in the manner of Apelles. Let us remember that according to many experts, the Louvre version is in a style developed by Leonardo only after 1508 and was more likely executed after 1510.
The conundrum with Vasari is that some experts suggest that some of things he wrote may not have been entirely correct. Many of his facts, however, can now be cross-referenced with other material. His work has great value and insight therefore as long as it can be verified by other independent sources.
Reading through Vasari’s version of Leonardo’s life, there appears to be a large number of errors. To be completely objective, they are believed to be errors because of subsequent new evidence: they obviously were not errors for Vasari. In addition, there are glaring omissions of many years of Leonardo’s life. Vasari must have known of these gaps, and simply ignored them, perhaps for lack of information. Today, modern art historians can piece together Leonardo’s activities almost to the day; though it seems that there are still years of his life about which we know nothing.
There is no record of Leonardo having ever received payment for the portrait, nor is there any trace of it having been in del Giocondo’s estate which was described in great detail in his testament. It is therefore likely that Leonardo kept it in his possession when he left Florence in 1506. Leonardo likely never gave the portrait to Lisa’s husband, Francesco del Giocondo, and instead took it with him throughout all his travels over the following ten years. In addition, recent dedicated scholarship confirms that the painting Vasari described in such detail is most likely not the one which was in Fontainebleau and which is now in the Louvre.
Vasari’s section on Mona Lisa must surely rank as one of the most beautiful descriptive passages for any painting. It is likely that such a description could only have been written by someone who had actually seen the work. Why, one wonders, does Vasari dedicate so much space, heart and soul to Mona Lisa? He certainly does not describe other Leonardo works so: his section on the ‘Last Supper’, one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, is primarily about the execution of the work; and the stunning portrait of Ginevra de Benci, referred to just before Mona Lisa merits barely a sentence: “… a very beautiful work.” It is clear that Vasari did not see the de Benci painting, and that he most likely did personally see the ‘Mona Lisa’.
Other renowned experts agree: Sir Kenneth Clark, one of the 20th Century’s pre-eminent art historians, writes (in 1939):
“How exquisitely lovely the Mona Lisa must have been when Vasari saw her; for of course his description of her fresh rosy colouring must be perfectly accurate.”
Professor R. Langton Douglas, respected British art critic, lecturer, author, and director of the National Gallery of Ireland writes (in 1944):
“I am firmly convinced that Vasari’s account of the ‘Monna Lisa’ is based on personal knowledge.”
The Renaissance scholar, Professor Pietro Marani, concurs (Leonardo da Vinci – The Complete Paintings 2000):
“ …Vasari may have seen the work, for this description is too detailed to be considered the fruit merely of his imagination, despite the fact that he mentions eyelashes (which are absent from the painting) and fails to discuss the landscape.”
[Editor’s notes: With reference to the eyelashes, subsequent tests undertaken on ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ have revealed, under intense new magnification techniques, traces of eyelashes. It is also likely that they would have originally existed. The landscape was most likely unfinished in Vasari’s time, and remains unfinished today.]
Vasari was well acquainted with Ippolito de’ Medici, the bastard son and only child of the Magnificent, Duke Giuliano. Vasari was born in the same year as Ippolito, 1511, studied with him in 1524, and followed him, then a Cardinal, to Rome in 1531. In fact, in the Dedication of the First Edition of his Vite (1550) “to THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS AND MOST EXCELLENT SIGNOR COSIMO DE’ MEDICI, DUKE OF FLORENCE“, Vasari comments that he “ … was brought up under Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici…” With this inside information we can be confident that Vasari knew nothing about the painting Leonardo had at Cloux, which is now in the Louvre.
Vasari makes no mention of the famous visit by Cardinal Luigi of Aragon to Leonardo that had occurred in France over 30 years previously; and though some connections that Leonardo had with Duke Giuliano de’ Medici are noted a few times in Leonardo’s biography, there is no reference to any painting that the Duke may have requested.
Historical evidence suggests that Salai, Leonardo’s long-time assistant, came back to Milan with the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ just before Leonardo’s death. [See Section ‘Salai’s Receipt and the Inventory’] While it seems highly unlikely that he would have seen the painting now in the Louvre, it is likely that Vasari saw the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ at some point while in the Lombard city, which he is documented to have travelled to on a number of occasions. Indeed, Vasari is not documented ever having travelled to, or visited any part of France. He was only 5 years old and still living in Arezzo where he was born, when Leonardo left Rome for the Loire Valley. Therefore Vasari most likely never saw any paintings that Leonardo brought there.
There is a simple explanation for Vasari’s account, given that we know now that he was mistaken and that it was in fact the finished Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’ which was in Fontainebleau. Vasari would have seen the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ during one of his earlier voyages to Milan, and heard that a Mona Lisa had entered the Royal collection. In 1550, he, like some art historians after him, simply assumed this was the same painting.